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Lies, Damn Lies and Viewthroughs


"There are three kinds of lies: lies, damn lies and statistics," the saying goes. The point being, of course, that statistics enable people to tell the most convincing lies due to the apparent legitimacy an argument has when it contains numbers.

In the online advertising world, one of the biggest points of statistical deception surrounds the topic of post-impression or viewthrough conversions. But before I dig deeper into the issue, some definitions -- there are basically two kinds of conversions in online advertising: post-click or clickthrough conversions and post-impression or viewthrough conversions. 

Clickthrough conversions can be either immediate (e.g. someone sees an ad for a 10 percent discount off any purchase at Amazon, clicks through and immediately makes a purchase), or delayed (e.g. same scenario as in the previous example, but the person purchases a week after clicking on the ad).

Viewthrough conversions refer to a scenario in which an ad is served to someone and they do not click on it (in fact, they might not even see it), but at some point in the future (usually limited to a 30-day period) they visit the advertiser's website and take an action. Using the same example again -- someone is served the 10 percent discount ad for Amazon, they don't click on the ad, but they visit Amazon a week later and make a purchase. That purchase then will be recorded as a viewthrough conversion.

At this juncture you might be asking yourself why I am writing about this issue at all. Surely, the above definition is well-understood by media planners, buyers and clients alike? Indeed, there has been much written on the topic in the past and there have even been some detailed and well-publicized case studies on the topic (in particular one by Advertising.com in 2003 and another by DoubleClick and Continental Airlines in 2004). The reason is simple: While most agencies and marketers know the theoretical difference between clickthrough and viewthrough conversions, few evaluate the impact of viewthrough conversions properly, either dismissing viewthrough conversions entirely, or attributing 100 percent of viewthrough conversions to their online ad campaign.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in between (DoubleClick found that 67.5 percent of the test group's viewthrough conversions were attributable to online creative in its Continental Airlines case study). But the problem is that there can never be one benchmark number for all advertisers and all publishers in all situations. In fact, the viewthrough attribution percentage (VTA percent) for the same advertiser will most likely be very different from publisher to publisher, and the reason for this variance is straightforward: There is a naturally occurring overlap between an advertiser's and a publisher's audiences. The size of that overlap increases as a publisher's reach increases. Thus, if an advertiser was to serve a transparent ad on, say, Yahoo!, that ad would drive a significant number of viewthrough conversions on the advertiser's site, even though no one could have seen the ad or been influenced to buy in any way. The same individual happened to go to Yahoo! and that same individual happened to purchase something on the advertiser's site, but the purchase can in no way be attributed to the serving of the transparent ad.

What an advertiser therefore has to do is establish a baseline audience overlap with the publisher by running a viewthrough conversion benchmark test as described in the Continental Airlines case study (click here for the full report and methodology). The principle is simple: Establish the viewthrough conversion rate of an entirely unrelated ad (like a PSA) to your site, compare that with the viewthrough conversion rate of your own ads, and the difference is your viewthrough attribution (VTA) percentage. For example, if a PSA ad has a one percent viewthrough conversion rate to sales on your site and your own ad shows a two percent viewthrough conversion rate, then you should attribute only 50 percent of your viewthrough conversions to that ad.

The problem with this methodology is that, to be truly useful, one has to conduct such a benchmarking test with every single site you advertise with. And even then, the results will fluctuate over time depending on your marketing mix and intensity (both online and offline). It is also expensive to continually allocate ad inventory to such research. 

Furthermore, viewthrough conversion is an unknown term in paid search advertising, which currently accounts for close to half of all online ad spend. Many marketers argue that one should therefore discount viewthrough conversions entirely and simply report and compare clickthough conversions. While this approach at least uses a common standard for measurement, it dismisses a very significant impact of online advertising; an impact which one intuitively feels is higher for display advertising than it would be for search.

Given this rather unsatisfactory measurement landscape, what should online marketers and agencies do? My suggestion would be that, unless you are conducting viewthrough conversion benchmarking tests as described above, you should not include any viewthrough conversions in your ROI calculations. It is fine to say and agree that some percentage of viewthrough conversions were generated by your online ads and that your results are therefore even better than what you are reporting. However, unless you have benchmarked the VTA percent for a publisher, you cannot, with a clear conscience, include any of the viewthrough conversions into your ROI reports.

It is an understandable desire to want to make the results of a campaign look as good as they possibly can, and this desire is shared by agencies and their marketer clients alike. However, we are not doing ourselves any favors by inflating the results, or by glossing over the true meaning of the numbers. If we acknowledge the current limitations of viewthrough conversion numbers, we might just be motivated to develop an industry-wide technology/research solution to the problem. If we ignore the current limitations and continue to misuse the data, we run the risk of undermining the credibility and accuracy of everything we do.

Stephan Pretorius founded Acceleration in 1999 and is currently responsible for product development and client strategy. Stephan holds a BA, LLB from WITS and an LLM from Columbia University, New York.


Dove real beauty: be the cause
You are probably familiar with the Dove Real Beauty campaign. The campaign is best known for its real-women models and more recently a 75-second viral film showing the transformation (they say "evolution") of an average looking woman into a supermodel.

The effort gave Dove an opportunity to position itself as selling more than soap; they now give permission for women to feel good about themselves and to look and act beautifully, however they choose to define it. More importantly, Dove is teaching 8-12-year-old girls about the importance of identifying beauty within themselves, focusing on the pre-teen years before the peer pressure to be like the mythical supermodel drives them to unhealthy habits. 

On the functional end, the campaign for Real Beauty website employs all of the right strategies and tactics. It has a compelling call-to-action, it positions the educational resources on the site as the main focus, and it's easy to send the website to a friend.

More than a year after it launched, the site continues to be updated, in part by soliciting recommendations for campaigns from the audience.  And, there are discussion forums and action kits where parents and kids can discuss their anxieties and find peers who share the same feelings.

This site has generated major buzz, and deservedly so. It is authentic, genuine and true to the Dove brand, while also tackling a serious issue with confidence and appropriateness. In short, Dove is sending an important message to young women and backing it up with meaningful support. They will sell more product as a result of this campaign, but that's not all they accomplished. Dove also made it clear to the user what is most important about their campaign effort: them.


Timberland: serve the cause
Philanthropy is fundamental to Timberland's corporate culture, and it is evident in everything they do. Employees can apply for up to six months of paid, full-time leave to work for a nonprofit. Timberland has a model-setting partnership with City Year, one of the nation's leading national youth service organizations, through which the company donates uniforms to corps members, and sends employees to volunteer on projects.

Timberland also wholeheartedly embraces the idea of integrating social justice into its business model by directing a percentage of sales from its infant booties to Share Our Strength, an organization that raises consumer awareness about children's hunger, partnering with the Student Conservation Association, the nation's leading provider of conservation service opportunities, and the Harlem Children's Zone, a non-profit organization that enhances the quality of life for children and families in New York City.

Timberland is best known for its footwear, apparel and accessories, but learning about the company's investment in the community is a part of the purchase process as well. Their website creates an experience beyond shopping, directing traffic to Timberlandserve.com, a micro site focused on the company's community work. The site lists volunteer opportunities across the country and provides resource kits to help organizations raise money, organize and operate.

Additionally, Timberland's new environmentally-friendly packaging and labeling initiative, which includes boxes that use 100 percent recycled post-consumer waste fiber, soy-based inks and no chemical glues, will be demonstrated online. Just as their boxes will feature a "nutritional" label to inform consumers about the environmental and community impact created by the manufacture of that product, users will be able to calculate their impact online


Start: facilitate the cause
In 2006, 65 percent of American adults were overweight or obese and physical inactivity was acknowledged as one of the leading risk factors for heart disease and stroke. With research showing that even moderate amounts of increased activity in any form could have an enormous impact on the quality and length of life, the American Heart Association (AHA) saw an opportunity to prioritize "adult inactivity" as an issue to combat.

This meant creating awareness, raising funds and engaging people in healthy behaviors. The result was Start!, a campaign designed to reach adults focusing on simple lifestyle changes and providing innovative tools and resources to implement these changes. Start! promotes walking – the activity with the lowest dropout rate – as the gateway activity to living longer, stronger, healthier lives. The premise is simple and based on solid scientific evidence that for every one hour of regular exercise, individuals can gain two hours of life expectancy. And a big part of what was communicated happened online. 

The site offers users a basic online fitness and nutrition program, allowing them to track daily physical activity such as walking or biking and track daily caloric intake. Users can also receive daily tips, weekly articles and recipes. More than 43,000 individuals registered for Start! and to date, the group has walked nearly 6 million minutes and more than 350,000 miles.

To help expand the reach, the AHA enlisted the online support of some of their sponsors as well. Healthy Choice, for example, launched the Start! Making Healthy Choices, which includes videos, recipes and other tools to make it easy for users to commit to a healthy diet and start making the changes to their life.

Alliance for climate protection: teach the cause
The Alliance for Climate Protection was founded by Al Gore to lead a 3-5-year campaign to convince people from all walks of life about the urgency and solvability of the climate crisis. The Alliance is creating a campaign that surrounds people in their daily lives, through the power and reach of mass media, online and through partnership businesses and organizations to deliver this important message.

The first piece of the effort was the launch of an in-depth website, in coordination with the Live Earth concerts, to help people take meaningful, measurable action to address the climate crisis. The site presented dozens of recommendations for how people can take action to reduce their carbon footprint in a way that engaged users who have significant interest in learning more about how to address the climate crisis but little working knowledge of the terminology of the environmental movement.

The centerpiece is a collage and tag list to allow users to explore content based on their interests instead of being directed down a specific path of action with traditional navigation. The campaign also featured online, social media and mobile components that reached audiences worldwide as well as event tools and a carbon impact calculator.

The site features more than 200 individual pieces of written and video content and a series of podcasts featuring noted environmental journalist and advocate Simran Sethi. Content was distributed through MySpace, CurrentTV, Participant Productions, Zwinky and MSN. 


The rapid technological and societal change that we are currently experiencing (and will surely experience for some time to come) has created new challenges for marketers. Cause marketing has been around for more than 25 years, but the need to find new opportunities for reaching and engaging audiences has raised its profile even more as of late.

Cause marketing allows a company to align its core value(s) with a consumer passion and the right cause partner to raise awareness (and sometimes funds) to positively impact a societal need.

In other words, change the world. And we know it works.

It is a proven strategy to differentiate a brand and build relationships with core customers and target consumer segments. 

Executing an effective cause marketing strategy begins with aligning yourself with an issue or cause and picking a good non-profit or similar partner, but it doesn’t end there. Online, you have to do more than just post some information, a logo, or send an email to show your commitment.

Users expect to immerse themselves in an issue. They want to have some choice in what issues the companies with which they're involved invest both their time and dollars. They want to see that their efforts are having a real, measurable impact. So, it's not just about cause marketing. You can't just put a ribbon on top of the box and call it a day.

The same tenets of good marketing and communication apply here as well, online or off, cause or no cause. The projects we outlined above didn't do anything super revolutionary, they told stories, they made activation easy on the user, and they aligned their interests with their audience. If you can do that, you will succeed.

Brian Reich is director of new media for Cone, Read full bio.

Stephan Pretorius founded Acceleration in 1999 and is currently responsible for product development and client strategy. In the seven years since founding Acceleration, he has grown the company's product line from the initial online media buying...

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